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Tree grows his own way 

Tremaine Johnson proves there's more to the new generation of Chicago hip-hop than Chief Keef and the drill scene

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The following winter Johnson lost his job, which set some big changes in motion. In 2002 he got his GED, and that fall he got hired at Nordstrom in River North. He started in the stockroom, but by June 2003 he was selling women's shoes—a job that would eventually earn him as much as $75,000 a year, including his commissions. Improbably enough, it also helped him expand his network of connections in the hip-hop scene: Marco Dane of west-side group Project Mayhem got a job at the same store, and in the mid-aughts Johnson met him and passed along a couple homemade CDs. "One day I was sitting in the house," Dane says, "and I just had it playing for some reason, and I was like, 'Wait, hold on, this guy is kind of good.'" Dane and Project Mayhem embraced Johnson, and he's been an unofficial fifth member since 2008. "There's only been three rappers that have made me cry," Dane says. "It was Tupac, Nas, and this guy."

In 2009 Lennon from Project Mayhem introduced Tree's music to Andrew Barber, founder of Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive. "He would always say, 'Yeah, we're dope, but you gotta check out this new guy that we're working with—his name is Tree," Barber says. "Immediately I was a fan." Fake Shore Drive became one of the earliest outlets to cover Johnson, beginning with his first official mixtape, 2010's The Third Floor.

The stage was set for Johnson to make the leap into music full-time. In April 2010 he injured his left big toe in the stockroom at Nordstrom and ended up staying home from work for six months—his doctor, he says, told him "take your time." Even after Johnson went back, he didn't work much—instead he started using up his accumulated days off. In March 2011, after eight and a half years at Nordstrom, he quit—in the process sacrificing a chunk of his 401(k) worth more than $100,000. It was during this time that he started working on what would become Sunday School and gigging live under his own name. In October, after he'd finished two tracks, he followed his girlfriend to Atlanta (and finally stopped casually selling weed); at the end of November, they broke up. Johnson moved into a house with a couple friends and wrapped up the remaining 13 tracks on Sunday School, collaborating remotely with musicians in Chicago—some of whom he'd never met in person.

Chicago is at the heart of Sunday School, but Atlanta affected it too. "I don't know if it was the depression stage I was in, being in Atlanta," Johnson says. "It wouldn't have came out that way if I hadn't moved to Atlanta, so that's one good thing that I could say about going." Johnson got a job selling shoes in the northern suburb of Alpharetta, but he was homesick and missed his family. In August 2008 he and a different woman had had a son, Mason, and until Johnson had moved to Atlanta he'd had custody two days a week. "I went back and forth twice to see him from Atlanta, and every time I left it was hard," he says. "It was killing me—it was just heartbreak. I would come to town for a day or two, take him wherever he wanted to go, and he never wanted to leave my side. I'd leave while he was sleeping."

Johnson wouldn't return to Chicago to stay till April 2, a few weeks after he released Sunday School—it came out on March 11, his late grandmother's birthday. The mixtape doesn't just address his weekly trips to the Chicago Salem church but also talks about her death in August 2009 and what she (and the rest of his family) continues to mean to him. Johnson decided to ditch Atlanta after a March 2012 trip to Austin for South by Southwest, where he finally met some of the contributors to Sunday School—including Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa Spencer, who both appear on "Good Shit/Roses" (listen to the track below). Back in Georgia, he talked to a friend in Chicago and decided to move back as soon as he could get packed.

Sunday School has been rapturously received by almost every outlet that's mentioned it, but those outlets aren't terribly numerous so far. The consensus about Tree is that he's a unique artist, which might be his problem—it's difficult to fit him into a niche. He's too street for so-called hipster-hop, too much of an everyman for gangsta rap, and too soulful and subtle for the drill scene. "He truly is one of rap's best-kept secrets," says Barber.

The secret is starting to get out. Nosnitsky's mixtape list for MTV Hive has proved to be a great look for Johnson. "That MTV tag was worth my $110,000 401(k) money," he says. (At the end of May, Johnson released a deluxe version of Sunday School, adding two tracks, the MTV logo, and the words "One of MTV's top 5 mixtapes of the year.") Nosnitsky points out that the high ranking Sunday School got is just one writer's opinion, not evidence that MTV's bigwigs have decided to back Tree—but they probably should.

Right now Johnson is almost halfway through releasing four EPs made with four different producers: late last month he put out The Lit, produced by Tony Baines, and early next month he'll drop Trillin, produced by 110% Pure (who's also worked with Pitbull). Before the year ends, he hopes to release the other two EPS, plus a full-length mixtape called Tree Featuring the City—a project three years in the making that includes drops from local MCs such as GLC, Vic Spencer, and Naledge from Kidz in the Hall.

Johnson is talking with producer Frank Dukes (Ghostface Killah, Danny Brown) about releasing Sunday School on vinyl this fall—and because Dukes is working on the soundtrack to the RZA's directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, one of Tree's songs, "I Was 14," is likely to be included. Johnson also has a project in the works for which Dukes and a team of other producers are making tracks—he's flying to New York City in a couple weeks to work on that.

Since Sunday School dropped, several labels—RCA, Atlantic, Talib Kweli's Blacksmith Music—have expressed interest in working with Johnson, but he hasn't jumped at any offers. The sudden explosion of Chicago hip-hop has provoked a major-label feeding frenzy, with nearly a dozen acts signing deals, but he's stayed apart from it all—acclaimed by critics but beloved by only a small cult of fans. "It's the gift and the curse," he says. "You know what—I'd rather get it the hard way."

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